Food Safety Basics


Product safety recalls and foods contaminated by unclean handling practices are important concerns for all consumers. Dealing with these issues after the fact is small comfort if you’ve contracted a foodborne illness or been sickened as the result of improper processing procedures.

Many of our food products are imported. In some cases, these countries don’t have the same types of controls our government places on food handling. An example is garlic. When you purchase garlic at the store, check to be sure the root remains are still there and the bulb hasn’t had them whacked off. Why? China uses human excrement for fertilizer and they must chop off the roots to clean up the product before shipping. Roots, good. No roots, not good. Buy locally whenever you can.

However, even at home, it takes just one careless or uncaring individual to cause harm to many others. Safe food handling and processing are essential to producing high-quality preserved foods—whether in the commercial arena or at home.

Much is beyond our control—and that includes nature. Being prepared to handle emergency situations is also important. Fortunately, there’s no mystery to proper food management techniques. As a home food preserver, you can take steps to provide your family with nutritious foods that have been prepared with your family’s health in mind.

Safety & Food Preparation

Cleanliness might be next to godliness, but in the kitchen, it stands alone. There’s nothing more important and essential than cleanliness. So what does clean mean? First, it means you wash your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to recite the alphabet) before you pick up a kitchen utensil; before you handle food; and after you’ve handled raw poultry, meat, or seafood.

Next, take a critical look at your work area. You’re going to be preparing food here, so everything should sparkle—but sparkle isn’t enough.

Scrub the countertops with a commercial cleaning product designed for the particular surface you have—granite, tile, Formica—or sanitize with a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach to 1 quart of water. Then scrub the sink. While you’re at it, what does your kitchen sink drain look like? Be sure it’s free of residual food particles and then sanitize it. You can also run the removable kitchen plug or drainer through your dishwasher to give it an extra good cleaning.

Toss the kitchen sponges. They’re a petri dish of bacteria and other organisms that can make you sick. As for popping them in the microwave to disinfect them, there are some safety hazards involved—fire primarily. Use kitchen dishcloths and wash them at the end of the day.

With the counters and sink ready for work, it’s time to take a cleanliness inventory of your kitchen equipment. The cutting board will get a great deal of use while you’re preparing food for processing, so be sure it’s not a source of contamination for that food. Cutting boards made from hard woods, plastic, and marble are easy to clean and sanitize. Check to be sure there are no cracks or splits in them, as these places harbor bacteria. Clean and sanitize them thoroughly after they’ve been used for cutting meats, poultry, and seafood. Having two cutting boards will cut down on the work. You can use one for meats, poultry, and seafood, and use the other for other foods. You can purchase sets of cutting boards with four labeled colors per set: one each for meat, poultry, seafood, and other foods. That way, there’s less chance of cross-contamination. You’ll come across these at kitchen supply stores or at the big chains.

Safety & Food Storage

Person cutting tomatoes

Food safety means keeping foods at safe temperatures. It’s counterproductive to keep everything clean and sanitary while you’re preparing foods, only to have them spoil on the counter or in the fridge afterward.

Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator and consult it periodically. It should register no higher than 40°F.

Think two! Two hours is the recommended maximum time perishable foods should be left out of the refrigerator and it’s less in warm weather. Cold foods should be kept cold (below 40°F) and hot foods hot (above 140°F). If you’re going to be traveling with perishable foods that need to be kept cold, take along a cooler and fill it with ice or frozen gel packs. Hot foods should be stored in insulated carrying containers and used as soon as possible.

Frozen foods should be kept frozen, dried foods dry, and canned foods stored away from light and heat. These are the basics, but a great part of safe food storage is keeping food available in case of an emergency.

Food Safety in Emergencies

The difference between an emergency and a disaster is often preparation. The best time to prepare is now because an emergency can quickly become a disaster if you haven’t made preparations to deal with it. A three-day emergency supply of food and water is the bare minimum, and ideally, you should plan for a week of total self-sufficiency. As a home food preserver, you’re already ahead of the curve.

Emergency supplies need to be stored in watertight containers in a place you’ll be able to access. This means having an emergency preparedness plan in place. In addition to food and water, you’ll need some other essentials. The US Department of Homeland Security has a website devoted to helping families prepare for emergency situations:

As a home food preserver, you’re prepared, resilient, and forward-thinking. You understand the importance of planning and you pride yourself on being self-sufficient. All these qualities will serve you well if you’re faced with an emergency.

People often wait for others to help them. Sometimes, however, that help doesn’t come right away. If you’re prepared to help yourself, you’ll be able to deal with the curveballs until help does arrive. Read more about salting.

Preserved Foods & Floods

Flood waters are doubly deadly. First, they destroy life and property and then they cause havoc with your food and water supply. What can you do to protect your home-preserved foods? Think higher. That’s the operative word when the weather forecast warns of possible flooding in your area. Do everything you can to raise your food supply above the level of flood waters. Refrigerators and freezers can be elevated by placing blocks (preferably of concrete, which won’t move that easily) under the four corners.

Move your preserved foods to higher shelves. If they’re in the basement, move them to the main floor or a second floor if necessary. Think closet shelves and even tabletops. If your home-canned foods come into contact with flood water, the US Cooperative Extension Service considers them not safe to eat.

In fact, foods that come in contact with flood waters should be discarded. The reason is that flood waters might be contaminated with sewage, chemicals, and other substances that might be poisonous or harbor disease.

So what’s safe? It might hurt to discard food you believe is safe to eat, but it’s a lot cheaper to toss a can of food than to deal with a foodborne illness that has the potential to be fatal. Only undamaged, commercially canned foods can be considered safe after coming into contact with flood waters—and then only if the outsides of the cans are sanitized. To do this, the Cooperative Extension Service recommends these steps:

  1. Fill one bucket with a strong detergent solution.
  2. Fill another bucket with a solution made from 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach per 1 quart of water.
  3. Put on rubber gloves.
  4. Using an indelible marker, write the contents of the can on the lid.
  5. Take the label off the can and dispose of it in the trash. Paper can be contaminated with bacteria and other harmful agents.
  6. Place the can in the detergent solution and scrub it thoroughly with a scrub brush.
  7. Take the can from the detergent solution and place it in the bucket containing the bleach solution. Leave it there for 15 minutes.
  8. Remove the can from the detergent solution and allow it to air-dry before opening.

What else should you discard if it comes in contact with flood waters? Again, the Cooperative Extension Service comes to the rescue:

  • Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. An eggshell doesn’t protect bacteria from entering the egg.
  • Any fresh fruits or vegetables.
  • Any fruit spreads preserved with paraffin. Paraffin can crack or separate from the glass and allow harmful bacteria to enter.
  • Commercially produced glass products with a waxed cardboard seal inside the lid, corks, pop tops, or peel-off tops. These include most mayonnaise jars and salad dressings. Even if you haven’t opened them before, contaminants can work their way inside.
  • Anything in a cardboard box (such as cookies, crackers, and cereals), foil, cellophane, paper, or any combination of these.
  • Spices, extracts, and seasonings.
  • Any opened containers or packages.
    Anything you’ve put in a canister, such as coffee, flour, sugar, etc.
  • Cans that are dented, bulging (which you shouldn’t even think about using under any conditions, let alone after a flood), or rusted.
  • Unfortunately, what you have left might not be much. That’s why preparing ahead of time is important. In addition to food, you’ll need water. There are a few ways to ensure that your water supply is safe. If you’ve used up the water you’ve set aside, you’ll need to purify the water that’s available to you. Get informed about salts & salting.

Purifying Your Water Supply

Water filters and water purification tablets contain iodine, halazone, or chlorine. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that because these tablets will kill most waterborne bacteria, viruses, and some parasites—but not all—a water filter must also be used. A water filter works on a very simple premise: the barrier’s micropores allow water molecules to pass through but are so small that they keep bacteria—which are bigger—from passing to the other side. Some filters are so small, they can even keep viruses from passing through.

Read the labels carefully before you purchase a water filter. The recommendation is that these devices must be 1 micron absolute or smaller. This information will be on the label. A micron is 1/125,000 of an inch. That’s small! Water purification tablets can lose potency over time, so you should replenish your supply regularly. Water sanitizing tablets aren’t the same as water purification tablets. The former are used for washing dishes, not for purifying drinking water. You can find these supplies at camping and outdoor supply centers.

You can add liquid bleach, such as Clorox or Purex, to your water supply to purify it for drinking purposes. This procedure calls for 16 drops of bleach (about ¼ teaspoon) per 1 gallon of water. Thoroughly mix the water and bleach and then let it sit for 30 minutes before using. If the water is cloudy or cold, increase the time before using to 60 minutes. The water should have a slight chlorine odor. If it doesn’t, repeat the entire process and let it stand an additional 15 minutes.

Chlorine bleach won’t kill cryptosporidium cysts that might be present in flood waters. Boiling is the best means of dealing with these.

If you suspect your water is harboring harmful bacteria, boiling provides the best means of purifying. Pour water into a clean pot and bring it to a full, rolling boil. Continue to boil for 1 to 3 minutes. This is the recommended procedure at sea level. You’ll need to adjust for altitude by increasing the boiling time several minutes at higher elevations. Keep the pot covered while the water cools. When cool, pour the water into clean containers.

Preserved Foods & Fires

Person washing his fruits

Fire and the chemicals used to fight it can damage your preserved foods and make them unsafe to eat. Heat can activate bacteria inside jars and commercially canned foods, and heat can also cause jars to crack and split, allowing air and harmful bacteria to enter.

Burning materials release toxic fumes. These fumes can penetrate many types of food packaging, including cardboard, plastic wrap, and screw-top containers. These foods aren’t safe to eat and should be discarded. Additionally, these fumes can penetrate refrigerator and freezer seals as well as contaminate the food stored inside. If the food has an off-putting odor or off-putting taste, dispose of it.

Any raw foods that have come in contact with fumes from a fire should be discarded. This includes potatoes, onions, or fruits.

The chemicals used in fighting fires also contain toxic materials that can’t be washed off food. Any foods that have come into contact with these chemicals should be discarded. These include foods with screw-top lids as well as foods stored in plastic, paper, or cardboard containers.

To decontaminate canned goods and cooking utensils that have come in contact with chemicals, first wash them in a strong detergent solution. Then immerse them in a solution of 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach per 1 quart of water for 15 minutes. Remove items from the solution and allow them to air-dry before using.

Preserved Foods & Earthquakes

If floods mean higher in terms of salvaging home-preserved foods, earthquakes definitely mean lower—but not basement level. Store your canning jars on low, sturdy shelves at ground-floor level, preferably in a sturdy cabinet with doors that close securely. If they lock, so much the better. This added protection can help keep the doors closed if the ground action gets violent. Have the key secured to the outside of the door so it stays put and is accessible.

Not being able to get to your food is one problem; having all that hard work destroyed just compounds the situation. Earthquakes strike without warning, so preparation is essential. After an earthquake, broken glass is everywhere—and this might include your canning jars.

You’ll need to check the jars if they’ve ended up on the floor or have fallen over on the shelf. Use sturdy gloves when handling jars. Pick up each jar and check the seal. If the seal is intact and the glass doesn’t appear cracked, dip the jar in a bucket of water and scrub to remove any residue that might be sticking to it from other jars that have broken. Then re-examine the jar carefully to be sure it’s intact. Dry the jar and store it in a safe location, as aftershocks are common and are capable of causing as much damage as the original earthquake.

Preserved Foods & Power Outages

There are two types of power outages: scheduled and unscheduled. You’ll receive a notice from the utility company for a scheduled power interruption. They’re generally scheduled during the workday to allow utility workers to make repairs or upgrade the system. While inconvenient, they shouldn’t pose any hazard to your refrigerated or frozen foods.

Common sense applies here. Limit the number of times you open and close your refrigerator and freezer. If possible, remove items from the freezer that you’ll need that day and keep them in the refrigerator. Then think before you open the refrigerator door. “Is this trip really necessary?” should be your mantra for the day.

A small, gasoline-powered generator can supply power to keep your freezer operating and safeguard the food inside. It’s a useful item to have on hand. They’re relatively inexpensive and available at hardware stores.

It’s the unscheduled power outages that can threaten your food supply. Again, preparation is key to handling them. That means knowing how to determine what’s safe to eat and what’s not and stocking up on supplies you’ll need during the outage.

Your refrigerator and freezer(s) should have thermometers inside them. If they don’t, it’s time to get one for each of these appliances and put it in a place where you’ll be able to read it easily and without keeping the door open too long.

Keep the refrigerator door closed. That’s the first rule. If you absolutely must open the door, take out everything you’ll need for the next 2 hours. Then close the door quickly and leave it closed. Warmth is the enemy here, as harmful bacteria grow in the danger zone, which begins above 40°F.

If you can keep the inside temperature of the refrigerator between 34°F and 40°F, properly stored food should be safe to eat. Generally, if the power is out for no longer than 4 hours, your refrigerated items should be safe; however, never taste food you think might have spoiled. If the food has an off-putting odor or color or if the texture seems different than it should, discard it without tasting it.

It might be prudent to gather up your insulated food coolers and put in a good amount of ice or frozen gel packs if you’re getting close to the 4-hour mark and the power still hasn’t come back on. Put the food in the ice, along with a thermometer, and close the lid securely. Add more ice as needed to keep the temperature at 40°F or below.

Getting ice when the power’s out can be difficult, and if the outage is widespread, for all practical purposes, it can be impossible. Having a supply of gel packs in your freezer is one way to prepare for this emergency situation. Your local grocery store might also have a supply of ice, but it will probably go quickly.

Dry ice is also an option if you can find a resource for it. A good time to find that resource is now—before you need it. The USDA advises that a 50-pound block of dry ice will keep a full 18-cubic-foot freezer at a safe temperature for 2 days. Wear gloves or use tongs when handling dry ice, as it will give you a severe burn. Dry ice has a temperature of –216°F.

It’s human nature to want to check on things to see what’s happening, but every time you open the refrigerator or freezer door or the cooler lid, cold air escapes and warm air enters. Resist this impulse.

If the outage occurs during the winter and outside temperatures are below freezing, you can put containers filled with water outdoors to freeze. When they’re frozen, you can use them to keep your cooler cold. Don’t store food outdoors, though, as sunlight and temperature fluctuations might cause it to spoil. Also, nocturnal animals can settle in for a feast and you’ll awaken to the remains of their picnic.

Your freezer is designed to keep foods at 0°F. It functions most efficiently when full. A full freezer will hold food safely for about 2 days, provided you don’t open the door.

When the power comes back on, it’s time to check the freezer. If food still contains ice crystals, it can be safely refrozen. Also, if the temperature is 40°F or below, the food can be safely refrozen. The quality might not be as good, but it’s safe.

If the temperature is 40°F or below but there are no ice crystals, you can cook the food and then freeze the cooked food or can it.

The Cooperative Extension Service recommends that the following foods be discarded if they’ve been exposed to temperatures above 40°F for 2 or more hours:

  • Raw or cooked meats, including lunch meats, hot dogs, poultry, and fish
  • Dairy products, including milk, creams, soft cheeses, yogurt, and custards
  • Eggs (including egg substitutes)
  • Any products with cream or custard fillings
  • Creamy salad dressings
  • Soups and stews
  • Casseroles
  • Refrigerated cookie dough
  • Custard, cheese, or chiffon pies
  • Opened jars of mayonnaise, tartar sauce, or horseradish should be discarded if they’ve been held at temperatures above 50°F for more than 8 hours. You might have read that mayonnaise doesn’t need to be refrigerated. This is true—until you open the container. In a perfect world, you could keep the mayo unrefrigerated even after that, provided you never touched it. The moment you introduce a knife, a spatula, a spoon, or anything into the mayonnaise, you’re introducing bacteria. Keep the mayo in the fridge.

Food products that should be safe at room temperature for a few days include:

  • Butter, margarine, and hard and processed cheeses
  • Fruit pies
  • Opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressings
  • Jellies
  • Relishes, barbecue and taco sauces, mustard, ketchup, olives, and peanut butter
  • If anything develops mold or an off-putting odor, it should be discarded.

Power outages that occur during the winter in colder climates can create other problems with your food supply. Your house will become cold. In extreme climates, your canned foods might actually freeze. Canned foods that have frozen might still be safe to eat. Metal cans that have frozen are safe if they’ve not split and allowed their contents to become exposed to air. If the seam has split and the contents have thawed, the food should be discarded.

Broken or cracked glass canning jars should be discarded. If the jars and their seals are intact, the food is safe. Allow them to thaw gradually at room temperature. As with all home-canned foods, check to be sure the seal is intact before using the food. If the seal has failed and the contents have thawed, the product should be discarded.

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